Perfectionism: The other side of Shame

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In my work as a psychotherapist, speaker, and workshop facilitator specializing in Asian cultural shame, people sometimes forget that shame doesn’t just show up in “negative” contexts as it can also rear its ugly head in “positive” ones, such as perfectionism.

Perfectionism can have dire mental health consequences that impact an individual and lead to depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and a host of other addictions. A recent study of over 40,000 American, Canadian and British college students published in the journal Psychological Bulletin(Dec. 2018) looked at three different dimensions of perfectionism and found a 10% to 33% rise over three decades. The researchers point to several contributing factors, including “more unrealistic expectations and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”

In past generations, we had latchkey kids with limited or no adult supervision growing up to a generation known as helicopter parents where their kids very rarely leave their sights and or constantly being reprimanded, scolded, or molded into their young minds to do things “perfectly.”

Some children may never have these words spoken to them but the unconscious rules of the parents are passed down to them as their parents may display perfectionism in their own lives which the children adopt as well.   

With ethnic clients, I tend to see perfectionism played out as a response to parental messages of conditional love (i.e. “We only accept A’s in this family”). In other words, children are only praised for “doing” well and never for just “being.” Consequently, children internalize negative internal core beliefs about themselves that they’re “not good enough” unless they meet these rigid standards of success to garner parental acceptance.

Here’s a case study of how perfectionism can play out from childhood to adulthood:

“My parents got divorced when I was 5 years old and it was very hard for me. Even though I had a privileged, upper-class upbringing, was a straight-A student, and I had turned into a quintessential perfectionist as a means of controlling my world.”

This woman shared the impact of shame from her parents’ divorce and her need to be perfect to counteract the trauma of her parents’ divorce. In the end, she couldn’t continue living with these unrealistic standards and turned to alcohol to self-medicate. Only after recognizing that the deep impact of her perfectionism drove her to alcoholism could she get better.

While shame is often associated with negative behaviors, shame can also drive you to seek solace in perfectionism.

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